In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 5

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In the Roar of the Sea by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 5

CHAPTER V.


THE BUTTONS.


It was as Judith surmised. Mrs. Dionysia Trevisa had come to remove her nephew and niece from the rectory. She was a woman decided in character, especially in all that concerned her interests. She had made up her mind that the children could not be left unprotected in the parsonage, and she could not be with them. Therefore they must go. The servants must leave; they would be paid their month's wage, but by dismissing them their keep would be economized. There was a factotum living in a cottage near, who did the gardening, the cinder-sifting, and boot-cleaning for the rectory inmates, he would look after the empty house, and wait on in hopes of being engaged to garden, sift cinders, and clean boots for the new rector.

As it was settled that the children must leave the house, the next thing to consider was where they were to be placed. The aunt could not take them to Pentyre Glaze; that was not to be thought of. They must be disposed of in some other way.

Mrs. Trevisa had determined on a sale of her brother's effects: his furniture, bedding, curtains, carpets, books, plate, and old sermons. She was anxious to realize as soon as possible, so as to know for certain what she could calculate upon as being left her for the support of Judith and her brother. To herself the rector had left only a ring and five guineas. She had not expected more. His decease was not likely to be a benefit, but, on the contrary, an embarrassment to her. He had left about a thousand pounds, but then Mrs. Trevisa did not yet know how large a bite out of this thousand pounds would be taken by the dilapidations on rectory, glebe, and chancel. The chancel of the church was in that condition that it afforded a wide margin for the adjudication of dilapidations. They might be set down at ten shillings or a thousand pounds, and no one could say which was the fairest sum, as the chancel was deep in sand and invisible. The imagination of the valuer might declare it to be sound or to be rotten, and till dug out no one could impeach his judgment.

In those days, when an incumbent died, the widow and orphans of the deceased appointed a valuer, and the incoming rector nominated his valuer, and these two cormorants looked each other in the eyes—said to each other, "Brother, what pickings?" And as less resistance to being lacerated and cleaned to the bone was to be anticipated from broken-hearted widow and helpless children than from a robust, red-faced rector, the cormorants contrived to rob the widow and the fatherless. Then that cormorant who had been paid to look after the interest of the widow and children and had not done it said to the other cormorant, "Brother, I've done you a turn this time; do me the like when the chance falls to you." Now, although nominally the money picked off the sufferers was to go to the account of the incomer, it was not allowed to pass till the cormorants had taken toll of it. Moreover, these cormorants were architects, builders, solicitors, or contractors of some sort, and looked to get something further out of the incoming man they favored, whereas they knew they could get nothing at all out of the departed man who was buried. Now we have pretended to change all this; let us persuade ourselves we have made the conduct of these matters more honest and just.

Aunt Dionysia did not know by experience what valuers for dilapidations were, but she had always heard that valuation for dilapidations materially diminished the property of a deceased incumbent. She was consequently uneasy, and anxious to know the worst, and make the best of the circumstances that she could. She saw clearly enough that the sum that would remain when debts and valuation were paid would be insufficient to support the orphans, and she saw also with painful clearness that there would be a necessity for her to supplement their reduced income from her own earnings. This conviction did not sweeten her temper and increase the cordiality with which she treated her nephew and niece.

"Now, hoity-toity!" said Aunt Dionysia; "I'm not one of your mewlers and pewkers. I have my work to do, and can't afford to waste time in the luxury of tears. You children shall come with me. I will see you settled in, and then Balhachet shall wheel over your boxes and whatever we want for the night. I have been away from my duties longer than I ought, and the maids are running wild, are after every one who comes near the place like horse-flies round the cattle on a sultry day. I will see you to your quarters, and then you must shift for yourselves. Balhachet can come and go between the rectory and Zachie Menaida as much as you want."

"Are we going to Mr. Menaida's, aunt?" asked Judith.

"Did I not say Zachie Menaida! If I said Zachie Menaida I suppose I meant what I said, or are you hard of hearing? Come—time to me is precious. Bustle— bustle—don't keep me waiting while you gape."

After a while Mrs. Trevisa succeeded in getting her nephew and niece to start. Judith, indeed, was ready at the first suggestion to go with her aunt, glad to get over the pang of leaving the house as quickly as might be. It was to be the rupture of one thread of the tie that bound her to the past, but an important thread. She was to leave the house as a home, though she would return to it again and again to carry away from it such of her possessions as she required and could find a place for at Zachary Menaida's. But with Jamie it was otherwise. He had run away, and had to be sought, and when found coaxed and cajoled into following his aunt and sister.

Judith had found him, for she knew his nooks and dens. He was seated in a laurel-bush playing with the buttons.

"Look, Ju! there is some broken mirror among the buttons. Stand still, and I will make the sun jump into your eyes. Open your mouth, and I will send him down your throat. Won't it be fun; I'll tease old Dunes with it."

"Then come along with me."

He obeyed.

The distance to Zachary Menaida's cottage was about a mile and a quarter, partly through parish roads, partly through lanes, the way in parts walled and hedged up against the winds, in others completely exposed to every breath of air where it traversed a down.

Judith walked forward with her aunt, and Jamie lagged. Occasionally his sister turned her head to reassure herself that he had not given them the slip; otherwise she attended as closely as she was able to the instructions and exhortations of her aunt. She and her brother were to be lodged temporarily at Uncle Zachie's, that is to say, with Mr. Menaida, an elderly, somewhat eccentric man, who occupied a double cottage at the little hamlet of Polzeath. No final arrangement as to the destination of the orphans could be made till Aunt Dunes knew the result of the sale, and how much remained to the children after the father's trifling debts had been paid, and the considerable slice had been cut out of it by the valuers for dilapidations. Mrs. Trevisa talked fast in her harsh tones, and in a loud voice, without undulation or softness in it, and expected her niece to hear and give account for everything she told her, goading her to attention with a sharp reminder when she deemed that her mind was relaxed, and whipping her thoughts together when she found them wandering. But, indeed, it was not possible to forget for one moment the presence and personality of Dionysia, though the subject of her discourse might be unnoticed.

Every fibre of Judith's heart was strung and strained to the uttermost, to acutest feeling, and a sympathetic hand drawn across them would have produced a soft, thrilling, musical wail. Her bosom was so full to overflow that a single word of kindness, a look even that told of love, would have sufficed to make the child cast herself in a convulsion of grief into her aunt's arms, bury her face in her bosom, and weep out her pent-up tears. Then, after perhaps half an hour, she would have looked up through the rain into her aunt's face, and have smiled, and have loved that aunt passionately, self-sacrificingly, to her dying day. She was disposed to love her—for was not Dionysia the only relative she had; and was she not the very sister of that father who had been to her so much? But Mrs. Trevisa was not the woman to touch the taught cords with a light hand, or to speak or look in love. She was hard, angular, unsympathetic; and her manner, the intonations of her voice, her mode of address, the very movements of her body, acted on the strained nerves as a rasping file, that would fret till it had torn them through.

Suddenly round a corner, where the narrow road turned, two hundred yards ahead, dashed a rider on a black steed, and Judith immediately recognized Coppinger on his famous mare Black Bess; a mare much talked of, named after the horse ridden by Dick Turpin. The recognition was mutual. He knew her instantly; with a jerk of the rein and a set of the brow she showed that he was not indifferent.

Coppinger wore his slouched hat, tied under his chin and beard, a necessary precaution in that gale-swept country; on his feet to his knees were high boots. He wore a blue knitted jersey, and a red kerchief about his throat.

Captain Cruel slightly slackened his pace, as the lane was narrow; and as he rode past his dark brow was knit, and his eyes flashed angrily at Judith. He deigned neither a glance nor a word to his housekeeper, who courtesied and assumed a fawning expression.

When he had passed the two women he dug his spurs into Black Bess and muttered some words they did not hear.

Judith, who had stood aside, now came forward into the midst of the roadway and rejoined her aunt, who began to say something, when her words and Judith's attention was arrested by shouts, oaths, and cries in their rear.

Judith and her aunt turned to discover the occasion of this disturbance, and saw that Coppinger was off his horse, on his feet, dragging the brute by the rein, and was hurling his crop, or hunting-whip, as he pursued Jamie flying from him with. cries of terror. But that he held the horse and could not keep up with the boy, Jamie would have suffered severely, for Coppinger was in a livid fury.

Jamie flew to his sister.

"Save me, Ju! he wants to kill me."

"What have you done?"

"It is only the buttons."

"Buttons, dear?"

But the boy was too frightened to explain.

Then Judith drew her brother behind her, took from him the basket he was carrying, and stepped to encounter the angry man, who came on, now struggling with his horse, cursing Bess because she drew back, then plunging forward with his whip above his head brandished menacingly, and by this conduct further alarmed Black Bess.

Judith met Coppinger, and he was forced to stay his forward course.

"What has he done?" asked the girl. "Why do you threaten?"

"The cursed idiot has strewn bits of glass and buttons along the road," answered the Captain, angrily. " Stand aside that I may lash him, and teach him to frighten horses and endanger men's lives."

"I am sorry for what Jamie has done. I will pick up the things he has thrown down."

Cruel Coppinger's eyes glistened with wrath. He gathered the lash of his whip into his palm along with the handle, and gripped them passionately.

"Curse the fool! My Bess was frightened, dashed up the bank, and all but rolled over. Do you know he might have killed me?"

"You must excuse him; he is a very child."

"I will not excuse him. I will cut the flesh off his back if I catch him."

He put the end of the crop handle into his mouth, and, putting his right hand behind him, gathered the reins up shorter and wound them more securely about his left hand.

Judith walked backward, facing him, and he turned with his horse and went after her. She stooped and gathered up a splinter of glass. The sun striking through the gaps in the hedge had flashed on these scraps of broken mirror and of white bone, or burnished brass buttons, and the horse had been frightened at them. As Judith stooped and took up now a buckle, then a button, and then some other shining trifle, she hardly for an instant withdrew her eyes from Coppinger; they had in them the same dauntless defiance as when she encountered him on the stairs of the rectory. But now it was she who retreated, step by step, and he who advanced, and yet he could not flatter himself that he was repelling her. She maintained her strength and mastery unbroken as she retreated.

"Why do you look at me so? Why do you walk backward?"

"Because I mistrust you. I do not know what you might do were I not to confront you."

"What I might do? What do you think I would do?"

"I cannot tell. I mistrust you."

"Do you think me capable of lashing at you with my crop?"

"I think you capable of anything."

"Flattering that!" he shouted, angrily.

"You would have lashed at Jamie."

"And why not? He might have killed me."

"He might have killed you, but you should not have touched him—not have thought of touching him."

"Indeed! Why not?"

"Why not?" She raised herself upright and looked straight into his eyes, in which fire flickered, flared, then decayed, then flared again.

"You are no Dane, or you would not have asked 'Why not I?' twice. Nay, you would not have asked it once."

"Not a Dane?" His beard and mustache were quivering, and he snorted with anger.

"A Dane, I have read in history, is too noble and brave to threaten women and to strike children."

He uttered an oath and ground his teeth.

"No; a Dane would never have thought of asking why not?—why not lash a poor little silly boy?"

"You insult me! You dare to do it?"

Her blood was surging in her heart. As she looked into this man's dark and evil face she thought of all the distress he had caused her father, and a wave of loathing swept over her, nerved her to defy him to the uttermost, and to proclaim all the counts she had against him.

"I dare do it," she said, " because you made my own dear papa's life full of bitterness and pain——"

"I! I never touched him, hardly spoke to him. I don't care to have to do with parsons."

"You made his life one of sorrow through your godless, lawless ways, leading his poor flock astray, and bidding them mock at his warnings and despise his teachings. Almost with his last breath he spoke of you, and the wretchedness of heart you had caused him. And then you dared—yes—you dared—you dared to burst into our house where he lay dead, with shameful insolence to disturb its peace. And now—" she gasped, "and now, ah! you lie when you say you are a Dane, and talk of cutting and lashing the dead father's little boy on his father's burial day. You are but one thing I can name—a coward!"

Did he mean it? No! But blinded, stung to madness by her words, especially that last, he raised his right arm with the crop.

Did she mean it? No! But in the instinct of self-preservation, thinking he was about to strike her, she dashed the basket of buttons in his face, and they flew right and left over him, against the head of Black Bess, a rain of fragments of mirror, brass, steel, mother-of-pearl, and bone.

The effect was instantaneous. The mare plunged, reared, threw Coppinger backward from off his feet, dashed him to the ground, dragged him this way, that way, bounded, still drawing him about by the twisted reins, into the hedge, then back, with her hoofs upon him, near, if not on, his head, his chest then, released by the snap of the rein, or through its becoming disengaged, Bess darted down the lane, was again brought to a standstill by the glittering fragments on the ground, turned, rushed back in the direction whence she had come, and disappeared.

Judith stood panting, paralyzed with fear and dismay. Was he dead, broken to pieces, pounded by those strong hoofs?

He was not dead. He was rolling himself on the ground, struggling clumsily to his knees.

"Are you satisfied?" he shouted, glaring at her like a wild beast through his tangled black hair that had fallen over his face. "I cannot strike you nor your brother now. My arm and the Lord knows what other bones are broken. You have done that and I owe you something for it."